The misunderstood mastery of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Forty years ago, one of the most infamous horror movies of all time was released. Tobe Hooper's grimy, lo-fi The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was filmed on a small budget -- reports differ, but no more than $300,000 by any account -- and went on to gross $30 million at the box office and become one of the most revered horror movies of all time. Yet for all that reverence and and despite the fact that almost every horror fan has seen the film at least once, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains strangely misunderstood, with a reputation that is frequently at odds with reality.
See also: From Basket Case to Raiders, the undying cult of genre film
The basics are undisputed, at least. No one will argue that this is a movie about a bunch of hippie kids who run afoul of a redneck cannibal family with a penchant for power tools in the backwoods of Texas. That much, at least, people get right. But once you go beyond that, a startling number of people, fans and haters alike, get everything else wrong.
Take the gore, for example. By popular reputation, this is a gory, gory film. Chainsaw murders! Cannibalism! A dude wearing a human skin mask! How could it not be a total gorefest? It was torture porn before torture porn was a thing, right?
Wrong. So, so wrong. There's more gore in the average episode of CSI -- hell, any contemporary police procedural -- than in this movie, and frequently a higher body count. The first murder doesn't happen until more than thirty minutes in. And while horrific acts of violence and murder are depicted throughout, from a girl being hung on a meathook to the titular chainsaw massacre, none of them -- not a single one -- is shown in any detail. Hell, there's barely any blood! You get a little spatter during the chainsaw murder scene, and near the end Sally ends up covered in a gallon or so, but beyond that, not much. The horror here is achieved largely through suggestion and the disturbing situation the protagonists find themselves trapped in -- alone and helpless against a murderous, lunatic family that lacks mercy, compassion or any connection with humanity beyond a taste for human flesh.
Ask most anyone about the tone and they'll tell you that it's unremittingly bleak. That's not true, either. Yes, the overall atmosphere is claustrophobic, disturbing and grim, but there's a lot of humor in the movie, too. It's not a horror comedy by any means. The humor here is as black as it comes, but it's humor all the same. Much of comes in weird little spurts like Franklin's tantrums, but the climactic scene of the movie -- the dinner of death with the entire redneck murder family and their last living victim -- is at least as funny as it is terrifying. A lot of that humor comes from Grandpa, the mummy-like, almost-dead patriarch of the family, who sucks hungrily at the blood from Sally's finger, then is manipulated like a puppet by his eager, lunatic offspring as they try to help him enjoy one last kill, for old time's sake. The trick is that the humor of the scene is at least as disturbing as the outright horror, but it's still funny (as long as you've got a sick sense of humor).
The artistry of the film is underrated, too. The sound design and score are incredible, using eerie oscillating tones, ominous chords and bizarre percussion to impressive effect, contributing to the overall atmosphere of creeping insanity and hopelessness. The cinematography is just as impressive, suggesting the look of a snuff film -- harder than it sounds -- and effectively masking the near complete lack of gore with smart camera angles and clever shot construction. Throw in impressive performances from the amateurish cast, especially the creepy hitchhiker and the chef, and you've got one hell of a movie, the kind that lasts forty years and creates legions of fans even as it's misunderstood and misremembered by nearly everyone who's seen it.
See the fortieth anniversary restoration of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at 10 p.m. Friday, July 18 and Saturday, July 19 at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas. Tickets are $10.75. For more information, visit the Alamo Drafthouse website.
Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.